Facebook has more than 300 million active users, YouTube has become so popular that 20 hours of video is uploaded to the site every minute, and Twitter has grown more than 2,500 percent over the past year. With numbers like these, social media has become, hands-down, the most effective way for brands to interact with customers. But put the power in the hands of the wrong people, and the wrong message might just get around the Internet at lightning speed. The employees of Domino’s Pizza, for example, might have found it amusing to post a YouTube video of them mishandling the food, but the entire chain suffered the consequences when the video went viral. As franchisors try to navigate this powerful, yet relatively foreign, territory, one burning question stands out: Should franchisors control their social media presence and thereby limit the social media freedom of their franchisees?
Nick Powills, CEO of No Limit Media Consulting, a franchise-focused communications firm focusing on merging traditional media methods with social media methods, believes that it’s critical for franchisors to remember that they are one brand and, therefore, should establish and maintain one social media presence. “If a franchisee creates a Facebook page, chances are they will spend no more than 30 days being involved with it,” says Powills. “When that involvement stops or slows or becomes inconsistent, consumers get frustrated. If these frustration-friendly venues are created, what do you think customers will do when something doesn’t go right? They will vent in the social world. When they vent, others will quickly follow. If the franchisee is not monitoring the site daily, then this turns into a huge negative for the brand.”
Wing Zone, a Buffalo wings takeout and delivery franchise, follows this philosophy and, while the company doesn’t prohibit its franchisees from having their own social media presence, they also don’t encourage it, says Matt Friedman, CEO and cofounder. As a result, all of Wing Zone’s franchisees have allowed corporate to maintain one message in the social media space. Wing Zone maintains a Facebook page and has enjoyed “incredible results” by giving out “Wing Zone Poked Me” T-shirts via the site, according to Friedman. “Franchisors must remain in control of their social media footprint, as it is the future of communications and the way people will ultimately interact with the brand,” says Friedman.
Wing Zone’s franchisees may be fine with letting corporate take control of the brand’s social media presence, but, for Mitch York, being able to affordably market and promote his Maui Waui Hawaiian Coffees & Smoothies franchise via his blog has been critical–especially since corporate does not advertise the brand at all. “I hope franchisors will tread lightly and not pile on rules beyond their rightful need to protect the brand,” says York, whose blog attracts 700 to 1,000 visits a month. “This could be a huge opportunity — maybe the only one — for franchisees to reach a mass audience for free.”
Gini Dietrich, CEO of Arment Dietrich, a communications firm specializing in franchise and business services, believes that, as long as franchisees abide by a general code of conduct, they should be free to establish their own social media presence. “I don’t advocate franchisors maintain control of social media, just like they shouldn’t maintain control of e-mail, phone calls, and what is or isn’t said at a cocktail party at a trade show,” says Dietrich. “If there is an online code of conduct, training, and a toolkit given to all franchisees on how to get started and where to spend their time, social media will work the way it’s supposed to — by allowing customers, employees, and stakeholders online access to the people with whom they do business.”
The jury might still be out when it comes to the degree of control that franchisors should have over their social media presence, but everyone is on the same page when it comes to the importance of having general policies and a code of conduct in place. However, even general policies are still in the making for much of the industry. Powills estimates that 95 percent of franchisors have no policies in place, and it’s only within the last month that Dietrich has even started to hear discussion on the topic. However, because it’s an issue of such importance, both expect social media guidelines to become an important factor in franchise agreements in the near future.
And, as more social media mishaps — such as the Domino’s Pizza blunder–take place, more franchisors will start to become aware of the importance of establishing a stance on the matter. Social media might be a new landscape, but leaving it untended can result in negative buzz. “I think marketers are messing up brand communication because they see social media as this huge gold mine,” says Powills. “It is, but, unless properly managed, it can turn into a horrible experience.”
Sara Wilson is a freelance writer who specializes in issues related to small businesses. Contact her at email@example.com.